A combination of modern loneliness and New Age woo-woo has convinced a great many people not merely that they need a soulmate, but that, through some unwritten promise of the universe, they are owed one. This belief, along with the more modest goal of a quick hookup, has kept countless online dating companies in business. It has also fueled a more craven operation, Twin Flames Universe, the subject of an unnerving new three-part docuseries from Amazon. Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Twin Flames Universe, based on a Vanity Fair article by Alice Hines (who also serves as a sort of on-camera guide), is a story of isolated, disillusioned lost souls flocking to a pair of huckster Messiah figures living large on other people’s trauma. (It is not to be confused with the forthcoming three-part docuseries from Netflix, Escaping Twin Flames, coming in November. For streamers, Twin Flames is the gift that keeps on giving).
Jeff and Shaleia Ayan have built an online empire and gotten rich through their Twin Flames Universe company, which offers “ascension coaching” to those seeking a “harmonious Twin Flame Union.” Give them your hundreds (or in some cases thousands) of dollars and you are guaranteed to find the person who completes you, the pumpkin to your spice, the peanut butter that makes your jelly pop.
If it all stopped there, the Twin Flames phenomenon would be just another get-rich-quick scheme in a land full of them. Of course, it doesn’t stop there. Director Marina Zenovich, a double-Emmy winner for her 2009 doc Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, uses interviews with former members and footage from TFU online sessions to illustrate some disturbing patterns. Jeff, who styles himself as a Jesus figure, and Shaleia, whose look might be described as goth chic, are shown pressuring members to switch gender identification. They become matchmakers, arranging partnerships among their followers, some of them tragically mismatched. They deny wrongdoing. After all, they’re merely doing as God instructs. And yet, much as ball don’t lie in basketball, video generally don’t lie in documentary. Here we have just the latest doc subjects whose own obsessive self-chronicling exposes them for who they are. You can claim you’re not a bullying fraud all you want, but it gets harder when there’s ample footage of you being a bullying fraud.
Parts of Desperately Seeking Soulmate are shot as if through a crystal, the prism of color suggesting an attractive distortion field or parallel universe where the Twin Flames pitch makes sense. In a way, it does. Prosperity gospel now has its very own sharp-fanged comedy series, HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones, and it has been around as long as money and religion. As Jeff shows off his shiny Porsche and Corvette, we learn that he once announced that he could cure cancer with his mind (for a fee, of course). That scam didn’t stick. But this one has. If you want to get rich today, manufacture a cure for loneliness. It doesn’t matter whether or not the object of your ardor reciprocates; Twin Flames Universe all but encourages stalking. I mean, who is your potential soulmate to stand in the way of God’s will? (In 2014, Ryan Gosling got a restraining order against a stalker convinced he was her Twin Flame. He apparently disagreed).
As in most cults, defectors are dealt with harshly. A text of a missive from Shaleia (shown onscreen) reads that she hopes someone will “continue your humble arrogance as it burns you and is leading you to your next life-time with severe Down-Syndrom” (sic). Apparently, spelling is not a prerequisite to mastering the Twin Flames Universe.
That universe might seem like a fish in a barrel, but it continues to grow. Desperately Seeking Soulmate isn’t just a worthy investigation; it’s also a philosophical query: Why do people believe what they choose to believe? What leads one to turn over their life to charismatic dime-store shamans? As an ex-girlfriend puts it, “Making a lot of money with minimal effort – that’s what Jeff wanted.” But what do his marks want, and what makes them think they’ll find it here? Sometimes it’s hard to see that something sounds too good to be true because it is, in fact, too good to be true. Similarly, it can also be difficult to admit that the universe doesn’t owe you a damn thing.